By Carl Guo, VI Form, Coleman Prize Winner (20-21 School Year)
The Coleman Prize in English is awarded to the student, who, in the judgment of the English Department, has submitted the most outstanding essay during the academic year.
In the book The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald presents a delicately crafted social commentary on wealth, class, and the American Dream through a tragic love story between Gatsby and Daisy from Nick Carraway’s perspective. Fitzgerald’s compelling narrative skills allow him to present multiple facets of the same coin and allow room for readers’ interpretations; one can find textual evidence for a variety of conflicting arguments. For example, many people read this book as a criticism of the futile American dream, but one can also appreciate Gatsby’s possession of at least some sense of ambition and contrast it to the utter emptiness of Tom and Daisy. Instead of giving a clear argumentation, Fitzgerald harnesses the power of ambiguity and epistemological uncertainty to ask the audience, symbolized by the eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg, thought-provoking questions but intentionally leave the answers blank. He does so particularly with the portrayal of Gatsby’s mysterious backstory, the vague American Dream, and Nick’s development as an unreliable, non-neutral narrator.
The mystery of Gatsby’s identity is a prominent theme pushing the storyline throughout the book. Before Gatsby is formally introduced to Nick at his party, he is already a heated topic in others’ discussions. During the dinner in Chapter 1, Jordan asserts adamantly that “[Daisy] must know Gatsby” and makes Daisy confused about Gatsby’s identity (Fitzgerald 11). This quote indirectly shows the widespread fame Gatsby accumulated. However, most people only know Gatsby as a rich man who throws grandiose parties but nothing of his true identity; this uncertainty creates dissatisfaction and incites curious minds to speculate on it. Therefore, rumors, such as that “he killed a man once” and “he was a German spy during the war,” brew in this environment (Fitzgerald 44). The audience reading the book is no different from the party crowd, pulled by their curiosity to read more about Gatsby; this similarity is one of the many inferences about the readers’ role Fitzgerald sets up in the book.
Gatsby himself actively enjoys being the subject of this conundrum since he is willing to forget his poor uprising to better fit in as an “old-money.” He purposefully establishes his mysterious character by claiming that he is from “San Francisco” of “the Middle East” (Fitzgerald 65) or boasting about his Oxford education even though he admits that he only “only stayed five months” (Fitzgerald 129). This juxtaposition of contradictory information not only discredits Gatsby’s character but also alarms the audience to review these facts with more skepticism. This skepticism pushes for more scrutiny to distinguish the truth from the lie, which Fitzgerald champions as a response to this uncertainty.
When Fitzgerald subjects both those in the book and the audience to the struggle of uncertainty, many would expect a grand reveal of a decisive answer after this long agony. However, to make the uncertainty an end to itself, he intentionally composes anticlimactic reveals. For example, in Chapter 6, Nick exposes that Jay Gatsby is really “James Gatz of North Dakota” that previously worked “as a clam-digger and a salmon-fisher or in any other capacity that brought him food and bed,” which is much less exciting than any of the conspiracies (Fitzgerald 98). Similarly, he spends little to no words on Gatsby’s shocking murder but spends a chapter on Nick’s tedious endeavor to get guests to Gatsby’s funeral. These plot choices leave the readers displeased by the result and push them to shift from a goal-oriented reading mindset to focusing on the process and discovering the value in wrestling with ambiguity.
The Great Gatsby furthers the struggle of uncertainty with the concept of the American dream. For many, the American dream symbolizes the openness of opportunities and a desire to live better, but the specifics, such as more detailed goals and the means to achieve them, become incredibly hard to grasp and vary from person to person. Nick sees how “Everybody I knew was in the bond business” and decides to come to West Egg almost on a whim to pursue this seemingly endless opportunity (Fitzgerald 3). For Gatsby, his American dream mainly surrounds the pursuit of Daisy and the repair of their love to a stage from five years ago. The American dream is an inherently vague concept that fits many narratives in it, where people usually transpose their ideals to a Platonic image of reality that only lends reference to reality but ignores the negatives. This overly optimistic mindset can illicit danger, and Gatsby is a clear instance as its victim, blinding himself with the “Platonic conception of himself” as “a son of God” (Fitzgerald 98). As Nick describes that “the colossal vitality of his illusion … had gone beyond her, beyond everything,” Gatsby does not fall in love with the real Daisy in the time of the story but the one five years ago as a symbol for his desire to enter the upper, “old money” class from which he feels so distanced (Fitzgerald 95). He is more in love with the notion of loving Daisy than the person herself. Often, the American dream’s nice-sounding name gives people a reasonable justification to fit in any whimsical idea without practicality and pursue them. With a pessimistic undertone, Fitzgerald asks the audience to ponder the true meaning behind the American dream and furthers their struggle with this ambiguity.
Nick as the narrator reinforces the uncertainty. After all, Nick experiences these events live and narrates them with personal emotions and biases, different from a strictly neutral, third-person perspective. Nick’s untrustworthiness as a narrator exactly comes from his desperation to persuade readers of his sincerity. He starts off this book with his father’s advice to reserve judgments of others because “all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had,” but he quickly continues by commenting on Gatsby’s and Tom’s character (Fitzgerald 1). At the end of Chapter 3, he boasts, “I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known” (Fitzgerald 59). Anyone remotely confident in their honesty would be unlikely to express such sentiment; trying to stress his honesty explicitly shows his awareness of his frequent dishonesty and embarrassment in it. In fact, he frequently lies to cover up Gatsby’s and Daisy’s affair and crucially “didn’t find it necessary to tell [Gatsby] he was wrong” that he thought no one sees them at the crime scene, which partially leads to his demise (Fitzgerald 59).
Nevertheless, because of his role as a supposedly neutral narrator and his effort to erect an honest character, readers are more susceptible to believing in his views than establishing their comprehensive opinions. For instance, many people think that Gatsby’s and Daisy’s affair is more justified than Tom’s and Myrtle’s because his tone shows a clear preference, ignoring possible arguments for the opposite side. When he first introduces Gatsby, he characterizes him as “gorgeous” and with “an extraordinary gift for hope” (Fitzgerald 2). In contrast, he introduces Tom as a man with “arrogant eyes,” “hard mouth and a supercilious manner” (Fitzgerald 7). This bias is not without reason: Nick is fond of Gatsby because he buys into Nick’s honest character and appreciates him as a reliable friend; Tom, on the other hand, views Nick as unfitting for the “old money” class. Even though viewers can only see the world of The Great Gatsby through the lens of Nick, they should not take this perspective for granted.
With enough burden of uncertainty placed on the viewers, Fitzgerald directly engages with how they should read this book through symbolism behind the eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg. This advertisement billboard with retinas “one yard high” and “a pair of enormous yellow spectacles” represents an omnipresent being that constantly observes events unfolded in New York City with its “persistent stares” (Fitzgerald 24). Fitzgerald manifests its omnipresence the most strongly after Myrtle’s death: “the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg … had just emerged, pale and enormous, from the dissolving night” (Fitzgerald 159-160). Its sudden appearance gives it the supernatural connotation, and as Wilson points out that “God sees everything” immediately after its description, many people associate the billboard with God (Fitzgerald 160). However, as opposed to a model of God that observes and reacts with punishments and remedies accordingly, the author’s choice to only include eyes, not even a nose, in the drawing gives the omnipresence only the ability to observe but not to judge. In this sense, Fitzgerald breaks the fourth wall and includes the audience in the novel through the eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg. For the fictional characters, the readers’ presence is identical to God’s in that they see every facet of the fictitious world; however, as the eyes open the ability to observe, whether to judge is left to the readers’ discretion. Fitzgerald’s bold use of contradictions and portrayals of complex character developments might leave many in agony against ambiguity. Human struggles because of the natural tendency to lean towards certainty, which is fundamental to building systems of knowledge. However, Fitzgerald’s goal is exactly to put his readers into this misery and challenge them to embrace the uncertainty, as many questions in life are without an easy answer or even an answer at all. While this message raises the question of whether ambiguity can be an end to itself due to its inherent vagueness, the valuable lesson is perhaps not where to land for the conclusion but where not to. With that mindset, The Great Gatsby allows the readers to embark on a journey without a destination. It invokes more self-reflection instead of eliciting an expected, one-size-fits-all answer on the book’s intrinsically complex themes.